By Charles Lee, Policy Fellow for The College Promise Campaign
I was youngest of nine siblings growing up, each of us with high hopes and ambitions. The idea of going to college was a common pipe dream, but one that was often cut short by unfortunate realities. My childhood was best described as hectic. I dealt with my parents’ divorce, moved from house to house, watched family members struggle with addiction, and faced the financial stresses of a low-income family.
In our household, it was made clear that we’d provide for ourselves once we turned eighteen. So, one after one, I watched my brothers and sisters choose to not attend college—not because they didn’t want to, but because they couldn’t afford it. The basic goods my peers took for granted, such as food, gas, and car insurance, were only possible because I worked full-time in high school.
The choice was clear as I approached graduation—continue working a minimum wage job or try to better myself by receiving a higher education. Going to a university was not an option because of financial burdens. I knew there had to be better opportunities out there. So, I took the risk to attend community college, hoping for a better life.
I was fortunate enough to land a wrestling scholarship at Marion Military Institute, a junior military college. Through my Pell Grant and scholarship, I was able to attend community college free of charge. But I still faced multiple struggles. Just as I was ready to head off to college, I was told the housing security-deposit fee of $200 was not covered by my aid. This cost, which some would consider small, felt like a mountain placed in front of me, almost derailing my aspirations. Thankfully, I was able to scrounge up enough money from family and friends to continue chasing my college dream. Their many small investments changed my life.
My community college experience was one that far exceeded my expectations. During my freshman year, I made the Dean’s list, an achievement that I never thought would be possible. Because of the small size of the institution, my advisor was always accessible and helpful, even with issues outside academia. I was able to build lifelong relationships with professors and was taught time management, leadership, and other life skills.
Attending school was still difficult because of financial stresses, but it paid off greatly. In 2014, I successfully transferred to the University of Alabama. Yet, even to this day, I still feel like I hold a piece of community college with me. It was my time at community college that made me realize just how valuable a higher education is. Though my time at the University of Alabama has been a pleasure, I wouldn’t be the person I am today had I not gone to community college.
I now work as a policy fellow for the College Promise Campaign in Washington, D.C., a nonpartisan initiative to make community college education within reach for hardworking students. This opportunity is something I wouldn’t have fathomed during my high school days. I chose to work for the Campaign because they help make the dream of attending college a reality for thousands of students across the nation.
I personally know how burdensome financial barriers can be. I’ve dealt with financial aid officers when loans have fallen through. I’ve faced hardships by not being able to pay for books or class materials. I’ve also been forced to choose between gas and food for the week. Thousands of students face difficult life challenges every day. But if they just had that extra helping hand, their lives would be dramatically improved.
Being the youngest in a large family allows you to experience life through a unique perspective. I have had one sibling pass away from an opioid addiction, another serve multiple years in a super-max penitentiary, and others struggle to make ends meet. I’m not sure what would’ve happened to some of my brothers and sisters had they gone to college, but I do know that if the opportunity had presented itself, they would have taken it.
This is why I’m helping make the dream of free community college a reality. Working to provide access for all to higher education isn’t a job for me, it’s a passion.